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Environmental impact during a product’s life – part 4

Highlighting possible effects resulting from distribution and sale.

by Nicola Pichel-Juan

Image © Rudzhan Nagiev |

The obvious starting point when aiming to minimise the environmental impact of a particular product is to consider the materials and components used, their individual supply chains, the production process and the production site itself. These areas typically account for the majority of a product’s footprint.

However, the distribution and sale of an item should not be overlooked, as decisions made here can also have a considerable impact and potentially outweigh any reductions made in other stages of the supply chain.

The cost of transportation

The most important consideration is probably how products are transported from the finished goods factory to the onward distribution centre. A common sourcing model would be goods manufactured in Asia or the Indian sub-continent being shipped to western Europe or the USA – journeys of thousands of miles. While most businesses will do everything that they can to avoid air freight due to prohibitive costs, it is also important to understand the increased environmental impact of air freight versus sea or road freight.

Using conversion factors published in the UK by the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA), the table below shows the impact of shipping 1 kg – roughly equivalent to the weight of an ‘average’ pair of adult footwear in a shoebox – by different methods. Although there will be variations according to the type and size of aircraft or vessel, using these baseline figures shows that shipping 1 kg by air from Hong Kong into London Heathrow would have a CO2e impact of 9.78 kg, compared with just 0.1 kg when shipped on a large container vessel on an equivalent route from Yantian to Felixstowe. This is more than 100 times the impact (both options would additionally have an onward road freight impact from port to final destination to take into account).

SATRA has seen published CO2e values for athletic footwear in the range of 12 to 15 kg per pair. This clearly demonstrates that using airfreight is going to counteract any other efforts undertaken to reduce a product’s impact.

No organisation will plan to transport goods by air based on either the cost or the environmental impact. However, from order placement through to goods being shipped, any number of challenges may arise that could cause goods to be delayed and increase the likelihood of air carriage being used.

Getting things moving

A good starting point to minimise this risk is to coordinate planning across the company in order to ensure that development and commercial calendars, business processes and agreed lead-times are generally aligned to. This allows goods to ship on-time by sea. It is possible that going forward, the combined pressures of increased legislation relating to emissions and emissions reporting – along with scrutiny from consumers – may mean that air freight is simply not an option that companies wishing to be seen as sustainable can consider.

‘On-shoring’ – that is, moving production closer to the point of sale – is being considered at least to some extent by many companies for a variety of reasons, including increased flexibility and shorter lead times. With wages in Asia rising along with freight charges, the cost savings that can be made by producing off-shore are not as great as they once were. Interestingly, however, on-shoring production may not necessarily give a reduction in the portion of a product’s environmental impact from freight.

Examples of CO2e impact of different freight methods using DEFRA (UK) conversion factors
Distances are taken from tools used to specifically map the routes of air or sea journeys. Air freight is more direct, so the air distances are often lower than an equivalent journey by sea for the UK.
Method Kg CO2e impact of shipping 1 kg for 1 km From To Distance (km) Kg CO2e impact of entire journey
Air 0.0010189* Hong Kong London Heathrow, UK 9,601 9.78
Sea (60,000 dwt+)^ 0.00000578 Yantian, China Felixstowe, UK 18,154 0.10
Sea (20,000 to 59,999 dwt) 0.01044 Yantian, China Felixstowe, UK 18,154 0.19
Air 0.0010189* Hong Kong Los Angeles, USA 11,664 11.88
Sea (60,000 dwt+) 0.00000578 Yantian, China Los Angeles, USA 11,906 0.07
Sea (20,000 to 59,999 dwt) 0.01044 Yantian, China Los Angeles, USA 11,906 0.12
*Emissions from aviation have both direct (CO2, CH4 and N2O) and indirect (non-CO2 emissions – for example, water vapour, contrails and NOX) climate change effects. The values shown here include the indirect effects, otherwise known as ‘radiative forcing’ (RF). DEFRA recommends that organisations report air freight emissions which include these indirect effects.
^Impacts vary according to container ship size. The larger the ship, the lower the per kg impact. Most container ships commissioned in the last few years to service routes from south east Asia to western Europe and the USA will exceed 60,000 dead weight tonnes (dwt) – the total carrying capacity of the ship, including cargo, fuel and any persons on board. Older ships on the same routes are more likely to be in the range of 20,000 to 59,999 dwt.

As indicated above, shipping 1 kg from Yantian to Felixstowe by sea has an estimated CO2e of 0.1 kg, while shipping 1 kg by road from Istanbul to London in an averagely-laden diesel lorry would range from 0.24 to 1.1 kg, depending on the size of the lorry used.

Another consideration, both from a cost and sustainability perspective, is how goods are packed and loaded for shipment. The size of shoebox used for any given product is a balance between being big enough to avoid the product being squashed, or so big that it is able to move around within the box. Both of these problems could potentially lead to damage occurring during transit. It is therefore important to select an appropriately-sized box during the commercialisation process, as if a box is far too big, the company is effectively paying to ship fresh air.

This logic follows onto outer cartons, which should ideally be able to be loaded into shipping containers to efficiently utilise the available space – again, to avoid shipping fresh air. Finally, a review should be undertaken of the packaging itself. Is it made from recycled materials? Has the weight of the packaging been reduced as much as possible? Can more environmentally-friendly inks be used, such as soy-based versions?

Liudmila Chernetska |

It is important to select an appropriately-sized box to avoid effectively paying to ship fresh air

The environmental impact of any retail stores under the company’s operational control will need to be factored in when getting goods to the final consumer. This will include areas such as energy efficiency, energy source and the footprint of any fixtures and fittings in the stores. Transporting goods to individual stores or sending them directly from distribution centres to e-commerce consumers would also form part of the impact of the distribution and sale phase of a product’s lifecycle. The same considerations as the outbound shipment from production sites discussed above would therefore need to be addressed.

How can we help?

Please contact for further information on the various environmental impacts of distribution and sale strategies and how they can be calculated.

Publishing Data

This article was originally published on page 22 of the January 2023 issue of SATRA Bulletin.

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